Tide Mill Farm

FEATURE- September 2011
By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs Mark Yaggie

A ninth-generation family farm is selling organic milk made in Maine. Did you know?


The story of Tide Mill Farm is an American story, a story of agrarian life, of hard work that makes its rewards all the sweeter, of a close-knit family, community, and natural environment, and—in this case, 1,600 acres of fields, woods, and oceanfront in the northeast corner of Maine. But what makes this story an American anomaly is that nine generations have shared the same way of life for almost 250 years.

Tide Mill Farm was founded before the American Revolution, before our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were deemed “self-evident.” In the early 1760s, Robert Bell, a 15-year-old Scottish immigrant, befriended a group of Passamaquoddy, or “People of the Dawn,” at their summer hunting and fishing ground Sipayik, near Eastport. On a canoe trip along the wild shore, the natives showed Bell to a small inland bay where strong tides and a freshwater stream came together, creating an ideal location for a mill. Bell returned in 1765 with his wife, Jemima, and a 5,000-acre land grant from King George III of England. Bell set to work building a gristmill at the mouth of the stream, and he soon added cattle, crops, and a dock to his homestead. Ships began to arrive, trading supplies with the colonies up and down the coast. Children were born, and nearly 250 years later, Bell’s descendants are still there, building on his hard work with their own.

Today, all that’s left of the gristmill is a lone grindstone and a timber foundation disguised by seaweed. The structure fell into disrepair in some unknown year, but the Bells stayed on tending blueberries, harvesting wood, growing crops, and raising livestock. Somehow the family was not fractured by wars or the call of industry. The tough economic climate of Washington County—currently the most depressed in Maine—did not lead the Bells to stray. Seventeen Bells still live on the land. Ruth, the seventh member of the ninth-generation, was born on the farm in May. Another baby is due in October. And then, there is the constant mother to them all—Nature, the harsh mistress.

Ruth’s parents, Aaron Bell and Carly DelSignore, are the primary farmers at Tide Mill today. They met at the University of Maine in 1996. Carly says her first visit to the farm was amazing but also overwhelming: “I said, ‘Oh, eighth-generation family farm…you going back any time soon?” When she became pregnant with the couple’s first daughter, their values and the kind of life they wanted for their children led them home to Tide Mill, flush with ideas for farming organically. What got them off the ground, though, was HP Hood.

By 2004, not a single farm in Washington County was milking for market—this in an area where dairy farms used to abound. Aaron’s parents had shut down their dairy soon after Aaron was born, focusing instead on beef, blueberries, and timber. But in 2005, eager to supply the growing demand for organic milk, HP Hood recruited Tide Mill Farm, along with other family-run Maine farms, to produce organic milk under the Stonyfield Farm label. The initial two-year contract allowed Aaron and Carly to take out loans to finance the necessary equipment, and it also solved the crucial problem of transport and distribution. This was huge.

Tide Mill’s cows produce about 200 gallons of milk per day, and Hood was not only buying 95 percent of it but picking it up at the farm as well, which was why it was so devastating when the Bells received a certified letter in 2009 stating that Hood would not renew their contract a third time. Demand was down. Hood couldn’t afford to keep the farms that were farthest from the processing plants—which meant all ten of the organic farms in Aroostook and Washington counties.

To the people who had revived these dairies, losing ground was not an option. It was a now-or-never-again situation. Along with the other organic Hood contractors from Aroostook and Washington counties, the Maine Farm Bureau, and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Tide Mill Farm created an L3C company (a low-profit limited liability company) called Maine’s Own Organic Milk—or MOO Milk—with the endorsement of the Maine Department of Agriculture. Hannaford and Whole Foods Market agreed to stock the milk in New England stores, giving the brand liftoff. It launched in January, 2010.

The whole MOO Milk process happens in Maine: Schoppee Milk Transport in Holden trucks the milk from the farms to Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, where it’s packaged and picked up for distribution by Oakhurst and the Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative. Ninety percent of the profits go to the farmers.

“We are what those other companies spend millions of dollars trying to convince you that they are,” says Aaron. “If you haven’t heard about us, it’s because we don’t have fancy packaging, we don’t have marketing, we don’t have prime shelf space, and we don’t have a dime to spare. But we’re truly grass based, we’re truly farmer driven, and truly farmer created.”

At Tide Mill Farm, chickens peck through a new patch of green grass each day and produce natural fertilizer. The pigs root in the dirt and moss, creating new pastures. The cows graze on grass that’s fortified by the sea fog. All of that, says Aaron, is a big part of nutrition: “When you get something factory-farmed, even if it says ‘organic’ on it, it’s not very nutritious.”

Unlike the monocultural farming typically practiced by industrial operations, the Bells follow the example of nature’s diversity in their practices and products. But they also don’t have much of a choice. “We try to live off of $20,000 to $25,000 a year,” says Carly. “It’s not a lot of money for a family of six. And then you think about the amount of hours you put in to earn that; it’s all day, every day, with an occasional break. When you translate that into hours worked, you realize why there aren’t many people farming. Our whole dynamic—the value we place on food—needs to change in order to compensate farmers for what their time is worth because they are doing an incredible service for our country.”

In addition to daily tasks, Carly works with Aaron’s mother, Jane, on the supplemental side businesses of Tide Mill Enterprises, including the balsam-wreath operation in the late fall and the spring seedling sale. Still, to make finances work, Jane has a part-time job an hour away in Eastport. As an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, she examines imported cattle as they’re unloaded and inspects cows bound for far-off destinations such as Turkey. “It’s ironic to think of her exporting cows,” says Aaron of his mother. “If MOO Milk were successful enough, she’d have a full-time job with benefits here—she’d be importing cows for us.”

“Financially, it’s a strain,” Carly says, “but we live a very rich lifestyle that has nothing to do with money.” Between the morning and evening milkings, Carly and Jane spend a lot of time with the kids, who are all homeschooled. “The overlapping of generations is pretty key to sustainable human development,” says Aaron. “We need to take care of those older than us and younger than us. In the farming lifestyle that’s the norm, but it seems like it’s getting lost in our society at large.”

The farm offers its own lessons about life and its fragility. Hailey, the eldest of Carly and Aaron’s kids, spent the summer tending 2,000 baby chicks and 500 baby turkeys with her ten-year-old cousin Finn. “Kids don’t get the chance to have responsibility these days,” Aaron says. “Hailey wrapped 135 bales of hay with me in the last two days. That’s enough hay to make 4,000 gallons of milk this winter. Nurturing thousands of lives is not the same responsibility as writing a book report. It makes them better citizens.”

Aaron, who was a philosophy major in college, thinks a lot about what the Tide Mill operation means, and what it would mean to lose it. Of course, if you are part of an eight-generation legacy, you don’t want the farm to collapse on your watch. But even beyond that familial responsibility, Aaron says, “I think local food can solve all of society’s big problems: economics, health, and environment. Food has become cheaper and faster, but we’re paying for it in other ways.”

Unfortunately, most milk success stories are built on volume, and right now that’s what MOO Milk lacks. The Hannaford supermarket chain has supported the brand by cutting its profit margin on MOO Milk so that its price matches the national competition. Yet each Hannaford store sells only an average of 120 to 160 half-gallons a week. That’s a solid figure for organic milk, but small enough so that even ten new customers per store can make a difference.

“It’s tricky,” Aaron says. “Milk—milk that’s not ultra-high temperature [UHT] pasteurized—is a living food.” Unlike the majority of milk on store shelves, MOO Milk is pasteurized the old-fashioned way, slowly over low heat (165 degrees versus 270.) Its shelf life after processing is two weeks, as opposed to months for the UHT products on the same shelf. “Dairy case managers love UHT products because they’re more like water,” Aaron says. “With MOO Milk, the case manager has to put in an order every week. That’s less convenient than putting in an order once a month for the national brands.”

Aaron imagines that, if there were ten times the amount of farmers that Maine has now, and if demand for local organic food went up, the logistics of getting it to consumers would completely change. But before that can happen, people need to know the difference between MOO Milk and the other organic options on the shelf.

Most people’s shopping habits revolve around familiarity. Many organic consumers are loyal to brands like the Organic Cow of Vermont, which was started in 1990 by an independent family farm in the Green Mountain State. The packaging has a wholesome message similar to MOO Milk, but ownership and practices have changed behind the scenes. The brand is now owned by Horizon (based in Colorado), which is owned by Dean Foods (based in Texas).

In 2010, Dean Foods was number 208 on the Fortune 500 list, which is ranked by revenue. The company continues to fight a 2010 U.S. Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit that alleges a Dean Foods merger eliminated “substantial competition” in the milk markets of Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This is big agribusiness, and it is MOO Milk’s competition, unless consumers start to see Maine-made organic, slow-and-low-pasteurized milk as a distinct and more desirable product than UHT milk that has been trucked into New England.

Maybe it’s as simple as a taste test. “I’ll watch people in Archibald’s, the little gas station up the road, buy our milk,” Carly says. “They’re not buying it because it’s organic; they’re buying it because they remember the way the milk used to taste when they were kids.” Some also buy it to support the little guy, she says. Many people in Washington County know the Hood story, and they want to see family farms thrive for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t want the landscape to change. Maybe they want local food. Maybe they don’t want to lose agricultural jobs. Or maybe their family has farming history and they just want to see that way of life continue.

Sometimes Aaron will come across an old rock pile or a cedar rail in the woods—the signs of his forebears are everywhere. But more important than any of these ancestral vestiges is Aaron himself. “I’m merely a product of my DNA,” he says. “DNA has figured out to pass itself forever through time. It’s that same DNA that’s been on this farm for eight generations now, and it has a hold on me every day.” Of course, it’s the same DNA that’s present in his children, nephews, and nieces—the ninth generation.

The kids have never known anything but the taste of fresh eggs, vegetables, and raw milk. The cows, chickens, and pigs they eat were all born on the same farm as they were. It is a loop so small it’s nearly closed; their lives and their very makeup are interwoven with the farm. Whether it has an emotional tether remains to be seen, but even if the kids don’t grow up to feel the same pull as the previous generations, the elder Bells want to give them the gift of that option.


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